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"Hindsights"


Looking back at:

Another Slow Night at the Blanco County Jail

By Michael Barr
Michael Barr

For 4 years the old Blanco County Jail in Johnson City sat empty as an Arizona rain gauge, but the drought broke in August 1923 when Sheriff A. J. Wagner slapped the cuffs on 2 desperadoes for "taking a joy ride in another man's Ford."

"While the record, which took four years to build, is all shattered here today," the Llano News reported, "the officers and residents are consoling themselves by pointing out that at least none of those placed under arrest are residents of Blanco County."

It's pretty remarkable if you think about it - a county jail that sat vacant throughout the Harding administration, but Blanco County wasn't always so quiet and peaceful. There were times a jail came in mighty handy.

One of the first Blanco County jails, built in 1877, was not in Johnson City but in Blanco, which was the county seat until 1890 when the county government relocated to Johnson City after a very contentious election. The 1877 jail, while well hidden, still stands just off the square.

Blanco TX - Old Blanco County Jail
The 1877 Blanco County Jail in Blanco
Photo by Michael Barr, April 2021


Blanco TX - Old Blanco County Jail Lock
The Old Blanco County Jail Lock
Photo by Michael Barr , April 2021

The incident that put the Blanco jail on the map involved Al Lackey who in 1885 got crossways with some of his kin folks and instead of boycotting the family reunion decided that shooting them was a better option. Authorities captured Lackey in Johnson City and locked him in the Blanco jail.

After several of the victims died, a mob gathered at Brushy Top on the Johnson City Road and decided to save the county the trouble and expense of putting a guilty man on trial. The mob rode into Blanco, yanked Lackey's habeas corpus from his cell and hung him from a live oak tree north of town.

There was no jail in Johnson City when the county seat moved there in 1890. The sheriff locked prisoners in the basement of the James P. Johnson building, now the Johnson City Bank.

Johnson City TX - Old Blanco County Jail
The Old Blanco County Jail in Johnson City
Photo by Michael Barr, April 2021

Then in 1893 the Blanco County Commissioners Court hired stonemason J. E. L. (Kergie) Dildine to build a jail. The 2-story rectangular building, finished in 1894, was simple, practical and economical. It housed 7 prisoners at capacity. The tiny cells were upstairs along with a small day room which also housed the showers. The cages reportedly came over in wagons from the 1877 jail in Blanco.

As was common in most country jails the sheriff and his family lived on the first floor. Later the sheriff moved out and the jailer moved in. In the 1990s the first floor of the jail housed the 911 center.

The historical marker in front of the jail mentions a jailbreak in 1897. I couldn't find out much about it although I did locate an 1897 Jailbreak IPA at the Pecan Street Brewery next door.

A more familiar exodus took place in February 1976 after Blanco County Sheriff W. J. Haas arrested Hershel Love for burglary. Love, aka The Texas Houdini, had already busted out of the Howard County Jail in Big Spring. He stole a metal pointer from the courthouse at his arraignment and used it to pick the lock on the cell door.

Love hated jails, and on February 5, 1976 he kicked out a cinder block at the Blanco County Jail in Johnson City, squeezed through the opening and got away.

Authorities captured him 4 days later in Junction. This time they locked him in the Gillespie County Jail in Fredericksburg, but after a week he lifted a ceiling tile, squeezed his way into an air duct and crawled onto the roof. He jumped to ground, hot-wired a 1964 Ford Sedan and drove away.

The1894 jail in Johnson City was still in use the night Jerry Jeff Walker got arrested in Blanco County on a drunk driving charge. Ol' Scamp, who was well-acquainted with the criminal justice system, was on his way back to Austin after a concert with Willie and Waylon at Luckenbach in 1991.

Jerry Jeff may have been a celebrity, but on that occasion he was just an outsider causing problems on what until then was shaping up to be another slow night at the Blanco County Jail.

Michael Barr
"Hindsights" May 1, 2021 Column

Sources:
""Speedsters Break Blanco County Record," Llano News, August 16, 1923.
"Blanco County Getting New Jail," San Antonio Express-News, November 13, 2011.
Edward A. Blackburn, Jr., Wanted: Historic County Jails of Texas (College Station: Texas A&M University Press), 2005.
"Oldest Jail in use in Texas still suits county's needs," Austin Daily Texan, October 6, 2006.
"Escape Artist Still Free," San Antonio Express-News, March 20, 1976.
"Love Hates Jail -proves it again," Big Spring Herald, March 21, 1976.




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